Reviews

God of Liberty

by Thomas S. Kidd

December 15, 2010

Thomas S. Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 304 pages, $26.95.

Looking to spice up a boring Christmas party this year? Ask your friends, family, and neighbors if America was founded as a Christian nation. Then step back and watch the fireworks. At least two camps will emerge. One will stress the founders’ words extolling the virtues of Christianity. The other will cite the founders’ debt to Enlightenment notions of liberty. Both have plenty of ammunition to keep the debate raging long after the eggnog is gone.

If you want to re-engage the argument as the voice of reason, hand out copies of Thomas Kidd’s new book, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. Kidd, associate professor of history at Baylor University, examines the tensions that make this dispute about America’s founding so difficult to resolve. The founders did not endorse a secular vision for the nascent nation. They believed Christianity (or at least religion in general) encourages the public virtue necessary for effective governance. At the same time, Kidd points out that founders such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison harbored little sympathy for orthodox Christian belief. But they teamed up with evangelicals to disestablish the state churches, unleashing the spiritual dynamism that has characterized America ever since.

Opposition to state establishment for churches was one of five ideas about public religion shared by Americans in the revolutionary era, Kidd argues. These ideas shape Kidd’s entire historical presentation. The others are:

  • a creator God guarantees fundamental human rights;
  • human sinfulness threatens the polity;
  • virtue sustains the republic; and
  • God/Providence moves in and through nations.

Kidd, author of The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, revisits the revivals of the 1730s and 1740s, “the most profound social upheaval in the history of colonial America.” According to Kidd, these revivals threatened church hierarchies and prepared the way for rebellion against political leaders. As revolution approached, religious and political ideas mixed in occasionally strange ways. Many Patriot pastors were profoundly influenced by non-Christian philosophers, chiefly John Locke, in their views on liberty and government. Meanwhile, General George Washington did not strike contemporaries as particularly observant in his Episcopal faith. But chaplains found no stronger advocate.

Such cross-pollination between politics and religion had crossed the ocean from England with the Puritans, and it continued into the Constitutional era. Kidd wisely allows the tension to linger where it cannot be simply explained. He observes that political and religious leaders commonly talked about virtue, especially during the national crisis that followed the Revolution and preceded the Constitution. But the virtue preached by the evangelical heirs of Jonathan Edwards could be sustained only by Christian faith. On the other hand, the virtue Benjamin Rush and several other founding fathers extolled was not evidently indebted to Christianity. All, however, agreed America could not survive without it.

Kidd does not shy away from making moral judgments even as he functions primarily to guide readers through primary documents from the period. Then as now, some Christian leaders readily interpreted national events according to their understanding of God’s providential working. Religion and politics intertwined. Church and state marched together into each battle. During the Revolution, high-profile evangelical preachers such as William Tennent and Richard Furman rallied support for the Patriot cause. Kidd writes:

The civil spirituality served as a transcendent framework in which to define, justify, and fight a war and establish the new American nation. It unified the cointinuum of American believers around the proposition that ‘the cause of America’ had become “the cause of Christ”—or at least of Providence (9).

In one of the most powerful sections of the book, Kidd tells the story of a Baptist chaplain who exhorted soldiers to do their duty for the sake of Christ Jesus as they torched 40 Iroquois towns sympathetic to the British and cut them off from their means of sustenance. Kidd concludes, “Providentialism was the most morally problematic religious principle of the Revolution” (130). Here he sounds an alarm much like Harry Stout did with his groundbreaking book Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War. Both historians observe orthodox theologians exploiting God to justify terrible violence. Kidd’s moral sense also emerges in a chapter about slavery. Even before the Revolution, the seeds of civil war germinated.

Many readers will applaud Kidd for pointing out the deeply significant Christian influence on America’s founding. Indeed, I hope other historical interpreters will follow Kidd’s lead and account for Christianity, especially the evangelical variety he knows so well. He makes much of Jefferson’s decision to ground the Patriot case for human rights in creation. Even if Jefferson cynically calculated this Christian formulation was necessary to gain public support, we should still recognize the powerful religious contribution to early America.

At the same time, Kidd offers no support for Christians who want to claim all the founders as their own. Kidd is not so much concerned with arguing whether Jefferson, Washington, John Adams, and others could sign orthodox creeds. He is more intent on tracing the Christian origins of their key arguments and observing their strategy for rallying Americans for revolution. He also seeks to account for a paradox we take for granted today, that America boasts both freedom of religion and vibrant religious life. He finds answers in the enthusiastic support some evangelicals granted Jefferson, a deist, in the 1800 president race, when so many other Christians warned he would unleash a torrent of ungodliness on America. We forget the terrible persecution Baptists and other dissenters suffered at the hands of established churches. During the 19th century, when the last state churches disestablished, these evangelical dissenters would propel the most vibrant religious movements in America.

Kidd’s research sheds much-needed light on debates that linger today, such as the nature of the Constitution. He argues that the Constitution sets up neither a Christian government nor government that excludes God. Rather, its authors sought to bring Americans together for the common good. Kidd writes:

The Constitution did not endorse secularism. It erected a shelter for free religious practice and at the same time responded to the need for public virtue. It did not seek to promote any particular denomination. By refusing to do so, it made Christianity in America stronger than ever. Evangelicals pounced on the opportunities created by disestablishment to spread the gospel of the new birth throughout the country, with no fear of persecution from the national government or from most of the states (227).

Kidd’s religious history of the Revolutionary era does not bolster conservative arguments for an explicitly Christian founding of America. The historical record doesn’t allow it. But Kidd’s gift for analyzing complex historical events and explaining them with concise, compelling theses gives us much more to discuss and debate about this fascinating, formative time.

Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He is the co-author of 'A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir'.
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  1. I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Thomas Kidd for my radio program INSIDE LOOK. If you’d like to hear our conversation, visit http://www.insidelook.org and look for it in the “Past Programs” archive.

  2. [...] Check out Collin Hansen’s review of Kidd’s new book God of Liberty for The Gospel [...]

  3. Thanks for the review. I have done a fair amount of reading in this area and it sounds like Kidd’s book is right on the mark. I also highly recommend James H. Hutson’s books. I recently finished “Church and State in America: The First Two Centuries” and he draws similar conclusions. Hutson is the Chief of Manuscripts Division at the Library of Congress and has examined a number of primary documents during that era that are rarely accessed. He is also a very good writer.

  4. The religious historian, Randall Balmer, wrote a fine review of GOD OF LIBERTY in The Christian Century:

    http://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2010-09/nonfiction-2

  5. I just finished the book myself, and you did a great job summarizing the book.

    I have one question though. You claim John Locke as a “non-Christian philosopher.” Greg Forster in his book “The Contested Public Square” seems to acknowledge Locke’s place in the line of Christian natural law thinkers like Augustine. In fact Locke seems to have been very careful in interacting with biblical texts–primarily Romans 13 as he thinks through the role of government and when and if citizens may rebel against their government. Is Locke really a “non-Christian philosopher?”

    • Thank you for the response, John C. Certainly many Christians found (and continue to find) much value in Locke’s writings, particularly on government and liberty. Clearly Christianity affected him in significant ways, as you and Forster indicate. American evangelicals owe him a debt of gratitude for his writing on toleration. However, the historians I’ve read conclude that Locke rejected orthodox Christianity, particularly the Trinity, in favor of rationalist Arianism. He was a true Enlightenment philosopher who rejected much of what he could not rationalize, as we see in his work, “The Reasonableness of Christianity.” Indeed, Christian philosopher/theologians such as Jonathan Edwards enjoyed the stimulation of reading Locke but sought to counter his arguments on many issues.

  6. John C. has raised a good question and I think Collin Hansen is mistaken to emphatically describe John Locke as a “non-Christian philosopher.” That’s too neat and tidy for the complex reality that Greg Forster describes below. While Locke’s Christianity may not pass the sniff test with the Gospel Coalition, I think it’s best to remain silent whereof we cannot speak decisively. Forster writes:

    The REASONABLENESS concludes that only repentance from sin and faith in Christ are necessary to salvation – the standard Protestant view. However, much more controversially, Locke argued that the only article of doctrine necessary for saving faith is that “Jesus is the Christ,” the Messiah. To really believe in this statement, one would also have to believe in all the doctrines it implies; for example, Locke held that to accept Christ’s messiahship, we must receive him both as Savior and as Lord. But there are many other doctrines taught in Scripture that are not entailed in the statement, “Jesus is the Christ.” Locke thought that Christians had a duty to believe all doctrines taught in Scripture, but he thought that only the doctrine that Jesus is Christ is necessary to salvation; failure to believe in any of the other doctrines taught in the Bible was a sin, but a sin that would be forgiven in all those who trusted in Christ’s messiahship.

    This view was controversial because it implies that one can be saved without believing in the Trinity or the atonement, two doctrines that were under fierce attack in Locke’s time. Locke himself expressed belief in the atonement, but in his later years he remained publicly silent on the Trinity. We cannot know for sure whether he privately rejected the Trinity. One alternative explanation for his silence would be uncertainty as to whether the human mind could ever adequately grapple with the meaning of the doctrine; this is a plausible possibility given Locke’s epistemological emphasis on the limits of the human mind (THE PUBLIC CONTESTED SQUARE, p. 156).

    • Is this everything that Forster writes about Locke’s theology? If so, I’m surprised that he would not mention that Locke encouraged Isaac Newton to publish his Arian views. Perhaps Locke would not “pass the sniff test” with the Council of Nicea, either. None of this changes the historical fact, attested by Thomas Kidd, George Marsden, and other scholars of the Enlightenment era, that American evangelicals of the colonial and Revolutionary periods borrowed heavily from Locke’s philosophy even as they criticized his well-known theological views.

  7. Christopher Benson

    @Hansen. On the main point, I think you’re correct: “American evangelicals of the colonial and Revolutionary periods borrowed heavily from Locke’s philosophy even as they criticized his well-known theological views.” Nevertheless, it seems mistaken to call John Locke a “non-Christian philosopher” when his views defy simple classification. Forster, in my opinion, takes a more responsible – and charitable – approach by admitting that “we cannot know for sure whether he privately rejected the Trinity” and then offering a possible explanation for Locke’s silence on the doctrine. My point here is not to defend Locke as the paragon of orthodox Christianity, but to complicate an oversimplified judgment. Locke was a man of his time, for better or for worse. Forster summarizes:

    Locke’s religious beliefs have long been the subject of speculation and misunderstanding: speculation because he remained silent about his beliefs on some important questions, and misunderstanding because the beliefs he did express do not fall easily into any existing theological system. Historians have spent much time arguing over whether Locke was an Arminian, a Calvinist, a Latitudinarian, a Socinian or an adherent of some other school, but in fact he cannot be said to belong to any of them. The only really adequate label for Locke’s Christianity is that it was Lockean.

  8. I enjoy reading the dialogue;

    fyi An addition to the discussion regarding interpreting and identifying Locke can be found at:

    John Locke: Deist or Theologian? by David Barton – http://www.wallbuilders.com/LIBissuesArticles.asp?id=106

  9. I enjoy the dialogue; some related discussion regarding interpreting and identifying Locke can be found at :

    http://www.wallbuilders.com/LIBissuesArticles.asp?id=106 (although the theologian v. deist dichotomy title may not be the best, just in terms of definition, ie, a deist could be a theologian, right?)

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